Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Nottinghamshire 252 for 5 (Duckett 119*, Hameed 55) vs Middlesex
There is never a bad time to score your first century at Lord's. But with a couple of big-ticket events here over the next couple of months, Ben Duckett chose wisely.
The opener peeled off a crisp 119 not out on the opening day of Nottinghamshire's Division One clash with Middlesex. Crisp for its execution rather than cleanliness, what with the two let-offs contained within the 176 deliveries and counting. It was productive, too, given that it allowed Duckett to acquaint himself with these surroundings better, while establishing a firm footing for his county, who closed Thursday on 252 for five after being asked to bat first.
Duckett's June will be bookended by Tests here, first against Ireland, then Australia in the second Test of the Ashes. The one-off fixture with Ireland will be the first time he sets his bag down in the home dressing room.
The 28-year-old's three previous Championship matches at Lord's - two for Northamptonshire - have resulted in just 86 runs from five innings, averaging 17.20. That he was eyeing up about that much in the evening session alone - "I kind of grafted for two sessions, and my idea was to potentially get 80 or 90 runs to finish the day on 200 or something" - speaks of the belief and form he is operating with at the moment. A shame, then, for Nottinghamshire and the neutrals, that the final 27 overs were lost to bad light and then rain.
Nottinghamshire say they, too, would have chosen to bowl. You wonder how much of both decisions pertained to wanting to protect/expose a Middlesex top-order that registered 4 for 4, 15 for 3, 11 for 4 and 44 for 3 in their first four innings of the campaign.
That is no such problem the visitors have, and there was an element of rubbing it in when Duckett and Haseeb Hameed made 117 between them, following up last week's 125 opening stand against Somerset. It should, however, have ended on three, and Duckett's knock on nought.
Just 15 deliveries into the day, Ethan Bamber found an edge from around the wicket, which wicketkeeper John Simpson and first slip Stevie Eskinazi watched pass them by. Off it went for the first of Duckett's 12 boundaries.
That the first four wickets fell for just 35 runs created a sense of "what might have been" while enhancing the value of Duckett and Hameed's start. Middlesex's attack had recalibrated in the middle session, with Bamber setting that cascade off by snaring Hameed via a catch to Eskinazi, before removing Matthew Montgomery with one through to the Simpson. Lyndon James' 41 was the only other score of note, outscoring Duckett before the fifth-wicket stand was broken on 73 by Martin Andersson.
That in itself spoke of Duckett's motivation. He scampered to a half-century off 69 deliveries with a six into the shorter Grandstand boundary, lunching on 60 from 80. He advanced down the track and was particularly keen on lapping Ryan Higgins around the corner - doing so twice for four. "I said to Hass I was going to do it," he said of the shot. "He laughed as if I was joking."
Then came caution. As much as the collapse lent itself to that, conversion was high on the agenda. Duckett started the season with scores of 51 against Hampshire and 75 against Somerset. Moreover, as well as the resumption of his Test career went this winter with 508 in five matches across tours of Pakistan and New Zealand, it grates the left-hander that only one of his five fifty-plus scores was a century (107 in Rawalpindi). Such was his desire to make this count, he stopped himself from reverse-sweeping leg spinner Luke Hollman to the short side, which is a bit like a dog passing on a bone.
"Over the past six months, I've probably scored five or six fifties and only converted once," Duckett said. "So to get over the line early on in the season is nice."
As per those numbers, and being the opener not called "Zak Crawley", he is guaranteed a full run at the summer, barring anything dramatic. Nevertheless, he wanted to set a marker down.
Having spent 20 balls in the nineties - 15 between 95 and 99 - Duckett dropped one knee to paddle a Hollman full toss around the corner to move to a crisp 100 from 152 deliveries. By his own admission, he got bored.
Upon getting to the other end, a subdued punch of the air, like a man who had completed today's Wordle at the first attempt, then looked to the heavens relieved like a man who had completed today's Wordle at the sixth attempt.
Duckett did not hide the fact that as much as he has helped fill Nottinghamshire's plate, loading up on runs will help him come June. Even opening this season after scoring his 1,012 Division Two runs last year at No.3 was down to preparing for England duties.
Over the winter, Test head coach Brendon McCullum told him he'd rather he opened. Having thought about it, Duckett decided to put in that request with Nottinghamshire's head coach Peter Moores on the eve of the season opener against Hampshire. It meant Ben Slater dropped to three, and there was a cruel irony in him being run out today at the non-striker's end via a straight drive from Duckett deflected onto the stumps by Roland-Jones. As it happens, it was just as bitter a pill for Roland-Jones, who missed a catching opportunity off Duckett on 70 in the process.
Two drops takes a bit of gloss off this first hundred of the summer. But in moving on from the first error, the end result makes them inconsequential in Duckett's mind.
"Scoring a hundred for the team is the priority, but the fact that it's here at Lord's is even more special," Duckett said. "Thankfully, I've had an opportunity to play here and have another knock, and I'm obviously going to get another one batting with the slope and different things.
"Obviously it's 20mph slower than what it will be at the end of the summer, but it's always nice gaining that experience. If I get the nod, I can think back to this and having a hundred here is nice confidence."
On the subject of pace, he does note that doing as he has done today - advancing down the pitch or getting down on one knee - against Australia's pace attack probably won't fly.
"I don't think I'll be walking at bowlers as much or paddling Pat Cummins. But it was probably more prep for the Ireland Test!
"That pace is going to come on a bit nicer; if it's flat, it's going to come on and sometimes pace is nice here in England. Actually, it can be more tricky facing someone more like Bamber, who's around the knee-roll at 75mph - it could be 80mph, or whatever it is. Sometimes I find that harder - to sit in and back your defence and play in a different way. I know they're (Australia) one of the best attacks potentially ever, so it's going to be tough but an enjoyable challenge."
Josh Little might have something to say about that Ireland comment. But evidently, Duckett is so sure of himself right now that it doesn't matter how much motivation bowlers have. His drive and self-confidence are as high as they have ever been. Just as well at the start of the biggest summer of his career.
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